Florida felon voting rights restoration bill draws concerns
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A bill that sets conditions on restoring felon voting rights won approval Tuesday from a Florida House committee over the objection of advocates who helped get rights restoration placed in the state constitution. The Brennan Center has a good summary of the need for the constitutional amendment.
Advocates said the language goes too far, in part by requiring civil fines and court costs to be paid before felons can have their voting rights restored.
“That will restrict the ability to vote for thousands of Floridians, especially people who are poor, especially people of color,” said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Volz said financial obligations should be considered only if a judge specifically made that part of an offender’s sentencing, such as restitution to victims. He also argued that the Legislature doesn’t need a bill to spell out a process for voting rights restoration.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved the bill, 10-5, with Republicans in support and only Democrats opposed.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that restores felons’ voting rights once they’ve completed their sentences, unless they were convicted of murder or a sexual felony.
Republican Rep. James Grant said the amendment approved by voters didn’t define what it means to complete a sentence and didn’t define sexual felony. He rebuked advocates for felons who contended the bill language was politically motivated.
Citing court transcripts, Grant said that when lawyers representing the advocates for felons explained the ballot language to the Supreme Court, they said court costs and fees would be part of completing a sentence and other details would have to be worked out in implementing the amendment.
Democratic Rep. Adam Hattersley said the bill represents the arrogance of lawmakers who think they know better than the 64 percent of the voters who approved the bill.
“It’s not only targeting the poor and is targeting minorities, but it’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” said Hattersley. “The will of the voters is clear, and this bill is trying to circumvent that.”
Grant shot back at Hattersley as he made his final arguments for the bill.
“One of the things that was said today was that I had the near arrogance to present this bill. I’ll tell you what is near arrogance. Near arrogance is ignoring testimony in front of the Supreme Court,” Grant said. “Near arrogance is suggesting this is a poll tax. Members, to suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes what a poll tax actually is.”
Kirk Bailey, political director, ACLU of Florida responded to today’s vote saying:
“CRJ 3 is an affront to Florida voters who approved Amendment 4. If this bill passes, it will undoubtedly continue to disenfranchise those who have already served their time and paid their debt to society. This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning – legislative attempts to undermine the will of the people who voted for second chances and to rid Florida of the last vestiges of its Jim Crow era past. This bill will broaden the narrow exclusions for murder and sexual felony offenses in the amendment, and broaden what was contemplated by completion of one’s sentence to include all sorts of court fees and supervision costs unrelated to one’s sentence. This will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of one’s bank account.